In the NHL lockout, the owners have it all wrong
By John Feinstein,
Every major sport has faced work stoppages in the past 40 years. In the past two years, only baseball, which invented the notion of the shutdown, has managed to avoid a collective bargaining stalemate of some kind.
But no sport gets it all wrong the way hockey gets it all wrong.
Hockey is the only sport that has lost an entire season because of a work stoppage. In 2011, NFL owners and players fought one another for every dollar until the moment when everyone on both sides realized that missing actual games — even exhibition games — was a disaster for everyone.
Then, there were hugs and kisses on all sides, and the money continued to roll in.
Next up was the NBA with verbal volleys flying in all directions. This time, games were lost. But by Christmas Day — when people traditionally begin paying attention to the NBA (except in Washington, where it is the day everyone officially gives up on the Wizards) — the angry words had stopped and basketball had started. Each team lost just 16 regular season games, and the playoffs were a major ratings success.
Which brings us to hockey, the sport that simply doesn’t get it.
Since Gary Bettman became commissioner almost 20 years ago, the league has had three lockouts. The word “lockout” is important: It is never the players insisting they can no longer survive under the existing terms of the collective bargaining agreement; it is always the owners.
Bettman and hockey’s owners clearly don’t believe in compromise. To them, compromise means the players accept exactly what they are offered without negotiating and thank them for allowing them to share the same room.
That may sound harsh, but it is almost literally true. During one bargaining session, the owners made a proposal, and when the players responded by making counteroffers on three of the points in the proposal, the owners and their representatives got up and walked out of the meeting.
In fact, when NHL Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr said a couple of weeks ago that he believed the players and owners were close to making a deal, Bettman was apoplectic, making it clear that they were not close to a deal and how dare Fehr imply such a thing.
Eight years ago, when there was no hockey season, the owners insisted on a salary cap and major salary rollbacks. They got both: a cap and a 24 percent rollback in salaries. Now, they are saying that wasn’t nearly good enough. Part of the problem is that the owners themselves have manipulated the cap by giving players ludicrously long-term contracts front-loaded with signing bonuses in order to keep the cap hit down.
Beyond that, even though the league’s hockey revenues have gone from $2.1 billion at the time of the last lockout to $3.3 billion now, some franchises are struggling financially — in part because of mismanagement but in part because the league put teams in cities where they didn’t belong so it could rake in lucrative franchise fees from prospective owners. All of which is why the owners are insisting they need a larger chunk of hockey-related revenue and a CBA that prohibits them from giving players the kind of long-term contracts they have been issuing with abandon in recent years.
This summer, while the owners were getting ready to demand limits on the length of contracts, the Minnesota Wild’s Craig Leipold, a noted negotiations hawk, signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts that would be way beyond the boundaries the owners are now insisting on. Later in the summer, Flyers owner Ed Snider, another hawk, signed Nashville’s Shea Weber to a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet, which the Predators were forced to match in order to have any credibility as a franchise going forward.
In spite of all this, the players have agreed to a 50-50 split of hockey revenues and to limits on the length of contracts. The owners have moved a little since their unreal opening offers but would still win a huge victory if they signed the offer the players have put on the table today.
But it isn’t good enough.
Instead of sitting down with the federal mediators who have been involved for almost a month now and hammering out the final details of the deal, the owners have gone home for the holidays — but not before taking the players to court to try to stop them from filing an antitrust lawsuit.
Without getting too technical, here’s what that is about: The union voted last week to authorize its board to file a “disclaimer of interest.” This is a legal shortcut to decertifying. It would allow the players, because they would no longer be a union at that point, to file an antitrust lawsuit against the owners. That’s the last thing the owners want. In 1995, when baseball owners tried to field non-union teams, the baseball union — led by Fehr — took the owners to federal court and won, ending the strike.
That was a different case than this because baseball owners were trying to unilaterally end free agency and arbitration. But if a court were to find the hockey owners have not bargained in good faith, it could order the lockout ended.
Most fans really don’t care who is right and who is wrong and who is taking whom to court and why. They just want to see hockey again. Hockey fans are probably more loyal than fans of any of the other major sports. In 2005-06, the year after the lost season, NHL attendance actually upticked slightly.
That likely won’t happen this time around. Even those who love the game are heartily sick of the discord.
It may well take a judge to save hockey from itself. As of this moment, no one running the game seems to care even a little bit about seeing any kind of save — kick, glove or stick — anytime in the near future.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.